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Interaction of Radiation with Matter

Radiation interacts with matter and loses part or all of its energy. In order to design a
radiation detector, radiation interaction with matter is important.
Most detectors of nuclear radiations have the basic principles of operation: the radiation
enters the detector, interacts with the atoms of the detector material (losing part or all of
its energy), and releases the low-energy electrons from their atomic orbits. These
electrons are collected and then analysis by electronic circuitry.

The materials are chosen depending on the type of the radiation. There are three types of
nuclear radiation.
• Alpha Particles ( helium nuclei) are generally emitted from heavy elements such
as uranium and thorium. Alpha particles only travel a few inches in the air, and
can be stopped by a piece of paper. Very thin detectors are sufficient (less than
100 m μ solid material) for alpha particles. Special Geiger tubes with a mica
window are necessary to detect them, as other windows will stop alpha particles.
• Beta Rays (electrons moving at extremely high or relativistic speeds). They are
more penetrating than alpha particles. They can pass through light elements, such
as paper and aluminum (but only small thicknesses). For β decay a detector of
thickness 0.1 to 1 mm is required
• Gamma Rays (electromagnetic waves with a much higher energy) have much
more penetrating than alpha or beta radiations. High energy gamma rays can pass
through several inches of metal. For γ rays the detectors of 5 cm thickness may
not be sufficient. Note that X-Rays and Gamma Rays are really the same thing,
the term X-Ray is used when the radiation is produced by electrons striking a
material, such as in an X-Ray tube.

A Geiger counter measures the intensity of the radiation (rate). A dosimeter may be
based upon a Geiger counter or upon an ionization chamber counter or other technology
and it measures the intensity of the radiation (rate) and accumulated exposure over time

Interactions of radiation with matter are grouped as
• Interactions of photons
• Photoelectric effect
• Compton scattering
• Electron-positron pair production
• Interactions of heavy charged particles
• Interactions of electrons and positrons
• Interactions of neutrons and other hadrons

• Interactions of Photons (Electromagnetic Radiation)
When x-rays or gamma rays are incident on an object, some of the photons interact with
the particles of the matter and their energy can be absorbed or scattered. This absorption
and scattering is called attenuation. Other photons travel completely through the object
without interacting with the material's particles. The number of photons transmitted
through a material depends on the thickness, density and atomic number of the material,
and the energy of the individual photons.
Photons interact with matter as

• Photoelectric effect

• Compton scattering

• Pair production

The electrons are ejected from the outer shell of
the atom when the x-ray photon is absorbed by the
matter and x-ray photon transfers all its energy.
The atom is thus ionized and photoelectric
absorption of x-rays occurs. Photoelectron
absorption is the dominant process for x-ray
absorption up to energies of about 500 KeV.
Compton scattering occurs when the incident x-ray
photon is deflected from its original path by an
interaction with an electron. In this process, A x-
ray or gamma-ray transfers only part of its energy
to the electrons in the orbit (valance electron which
is essentially free) and then the electron leaves the
atom and gamma-ray deflects in a different
direction. Since the scattered x-ray photon has less
energy, therefore, it has a longer wavelength than
the incident photon.
In pair production a high energy photon is
transformed into an electron-positron pair. Pair
production can occur when the x-ray photon
energy is greater than 1.02 MeV, but really
only becomes significant at energies around 10
MeV. Positrons are very short lived and
disappear (positron annihilation) with the
formation of two photons of 0.51 MeV
Other photon interaction phenomenon may be considered, but they are generally

Thomson scattering (also known as
Rayleigh, coherent, or classical scattering)
occurs when the x-ray photon interacts
with the whole atom so that the photon is
scattered with no change in internal energy
to the scattering atom, nor to the x-ray
photon. Thomson scattering is never more
than a minor contributor to the absorption
coefficient. The scattering occurs without
the loss of energy. Scattering is mainly in
the forward direction.
Photodisintegration is the process
by which the x-ray photon is captured
by the nucleus of the atom with the
ejection of a particle from the nucleus
when all the energy of the x-ray is
given to the nucleus. Because of the
enormously high energies involved,
this process may be neglected for the
energies of x-rays used in
• Interactions of charged particles

The dominant mechanism for energy loss at lower (non-relativistic) energies is the
electromagnetic interaction (Coulomb scattering) between the moving charged particle
and atomic electrons within the absorbing material of detector. Since the electromagnetic
interaction extends over some distance, it is not necessary for the charged particle to
make a direct collision with an atom.

The incident particle can transfer energy to the atom, raising it to a higher energy level
(excitation) or it may transfer enough energy to remove an electron from the atom
altogether (ionization). Although this fundamental mechanism operates for all kinds of
charged particles, there are considerable differences in the overall patterns of energy loss
and scattering between the light particles (electrons and positrons), heavy particles
(muons, protons, alpha particles and light nuclei), and heavy ions (partially or fully
ionised atoms of high Z elements). Most of these differences arise from the dynamics of
the collision process.

In general, when a massive particle collides with a much lighter particle, the laws of
energy and momentum conservation predict that only a small fraction of the massive
particle's energy can be transferred to the less massive particle. The actual amount of
energy transferred will depend on how closely the particles approach and restrictions
imposed by quantization of energy levels. The largest energy transfers occur in head-on

• Interactions of neutrons and other hadrons.

Neutrons that are uncharged particles do not interact electromagnetically with electrons
or nuclei in matter. Instead, the nuclear interaction with nuclei is the most common
interaction, but this can occur only if the neutron comes within 1 fm of the nucleus.
Hence the attenuation coefficient for neutrons is small and neutrons can penetrate large
amounts of matter. The main interaction processes are elastic scattering, inelastic
scattering, radiative capture and other nuclear captures.

In an elastic scattering process kinetic energy and momentum are both conserved. When
a neutron scatters elastically from a nucleus it gives some of its kinetic energy to the
nucleus, but the nucleus does not go into an excited state. Since the neutron is small
compared with most nuclei, it does not lose much energy in each collision and it can take
many collisions to lose its kinetic energy.

In the inelastic and capture processes, some of the neutron's kinetic energy is transferred
to internal energy of the target nucleus which is left in an excited state and later decays
by emitting neutrons or gamma radiation.

Gas-Filled Counters

Gas-filled detectors register a current pulse from the collection of electron-ion pairs

Scintillation Detectors

A scintillation detector counts light pulses created when an X-ray passes through a

Semiconductor Detectors

A semiconductor detector register a current pulse from the formation of electron-hole

Other Detector Types

• Magnetic Spectrometers
• Counter Telescope
• Multiwire Proportional Counters
• Polarimeters

All of these processes photon either disappears or a significantly deflected from its
original direction of motion. Photons travel different distances within a material. The
number of photons reaching a specific point within the matter decreases exponentially
with distance traveled. If a beam of monoenergetic photons is incident perpendicular to
the surface of an absorber, the curve is described by a formula with a thickness dx

μ = −
Here μ has dimensions of inverse length and it is called linear absorption
photo Compton pair
μ μ μ μ = + + . The linear attenuation coefficient describes
the fraction of a beam of x-rays or gamma rays that is absorbed or scattered per unit
thickness of the absorber. The ratio of the number of transmitted and incident photons are
obtained as

μ −
The absorption coefficient is related to the mean free path d (average distance in the
absorber before an interaction takes place and its typical values is about
-3 -1
10 -10 min
solid absorber)

xe dx
e dx

= =

The probability for any photon interaction to occure depends on the absorber density. If
we use
as mass attenuation coefficient and x ρ as mass thickness in units of mass per
area, we then have

( ) /
μ ρ ρ −

Problem: 7.5
The immediate environment of an accelerator or a reactor contains large fluxes of
gamma-rays of energies in the vicinity of 5-10 MeV. What thickness of lead is required
to reduce the photon intensity by a factor of 10
Around 5-10 MeV energy:
0.05 / cm g

( )
( ) ( )
1 1
10 48.9
I I e t Ln Ln cm
μ ρ


⇒ =

⎪ =

= ⇒ = = =

Interactions of Neutrons
Neutrons carry no charge and therefore they interact with absorber nuclei via strong
force. The range of this force is short and an interaction can only occur if the neutron
approaches within
10 m

≈ of a nucleus. Strongly depending on neutron energy, a
neutron may interact with a nucleus via a number of different processes
• Elastic scattering (n,n)
• Inelastic scattering (n,n’)
• Radiative capture ( , n γ )
• Reactions that produce charged particles (n,p) or ( , n α )

The total cross section for the interaction of neutrons with matter is given by

( , ) ( , ') ( , ) ( , ) ( , )
Tot n n n n n n p n γ α
σ σ σ σ σ σ = + + + + +

In analogy to photons, for monoenergetic neotrons the transmission is given by

N x
T e
σ −
= =

Where I and
I are the measured intensities with and without absorber, respectively,
between incident neutron beam and detector. The neutron mean free path is



If incident neutrons are not monoenergetics,

[ ]
( )
0 0 0
( ) ( ) 1 ( ) 1 ( ) ( )
exp ( ) ( )
n E
tot tot
T f E e dE f E n E dE n f E E dE
n f E E dE e
σ σ
∞ ∞ ∞

= ≈ − = −
⎛ ⎞
≈ − =
⎜ ⎟
⎜ ⎟
⎝ ⎠
∫ ∫ ∫

where the average total cross section is defined as
( ) ( )
tot tot
f E E dE σ σ